The Fine Art of Compassion

Imagine this scenario: you are keen to get a particular job and an opportunity for it comes up. You prepare meticulously for the interview, but somehow, it doesn’t go well. The interviewers don’t seem to warm to you, and you know in your heart that you will not be chosen: a gut feeling confirmed a week later by a polite rejection letter. What is your reaction? More specifically, how willing are you to extend compassion to yourself for having failed in this, the most important of goals to you?

And what if that same job candidate is not you, but your partner? Let’s say you really need him or her to get the job because the time in unemployment has been biting your household, causing financial and relational difficulties. Yet you know your partner suffers from self-esteem issues and tends not to present well at interviews, thus losing out on many jobs that he or she could do; you are at your wit’s end with frustration. Now what is your reaction? Are you willing to extend compassion to your partner for this failure?

If you have been ruminating over the outcome of the interview and beating up either yourself or your partner, you will not be alone, but you do not have to suffer in this way. You can practice the fine art of compassion instead. Let’s focus first on self-compassion and then look at having it for others.


Granting compassion to ourselves involves being aware of our own pain and suffering, and understanding that this is a difficult but normal human experience. It is about creating a kind, caring space within ourselves, free of judgment, within which we can alleviate our pain and increase our wellbeing (Neff; 2010; Emel, n.d.). Moreover, the compassion that we learn to direct toward ourselves is the first genuine step toward embracing compassion for all beings, and is integral to preventing the burnout so rife in the helping fields.

What gets in the way of self-compassion

It would seem that those of us in the helping fields would be blessed with an abundance of self-compassion, given that we have made compassion for others into our life’s work. Yet we create barriers by telling ourselves some of the following.

“I would be indulging myself.” Self-indulgence involves getting everything you want without regard for the consequences, whereas self-compassion moves toward your health and wellbeing. You become aware of your pain, and lean into it, softly, whereas self-indulgence would have you deny pain and go numb to it.

“I won’t be motivated if I don’t criticise myself.” Maybe your inner critic developed in order to keep you safe from harm, but do you really need it now? Being kind to yourself engenders a healthier motivation (Emel, n.d.).

“It would be selfish of me.” How does beating up on ourselves make us kinder to others? The Dalai Lama states: “If you don’t love yourself, you cannot love others. . . . If you have no compassion for yourself, then you are not able of developing compassion for others” (Dalai Lama, in Ohlin, 2018).

“It’s for whiners.” We’ve probably all been admonished: “Man up!” “Suck it up, princess!” Developed societies tend to reward toughing it out more than pausing to nurture oneself (Emel, n.d.). Yet toughness without gentleness is like iron: strong but brittle; it cracks. Better we develop strength with the gentle kindness of compassion: like steel, it is strong but resilient.

The components of self-compassion

Dr. Kristin Neff (2010) notes three components of self-compassion: self-kindness, common humanity, and mindfulness.


When our inner critic gets activated through the threat and drive systems within us, we experience anxiety, anger, and depression. We need to activate the self-soothing system, which can calm the threat and drive systems. Enter the skills of self-kindness. Imagine for a moment that the scenario we introduced at the beginning – not getting a strongly desired job – happened to a good friend instead of you or your partner. How would you have reacted to the news?

Few of us who would call ourselves a “friend” would have said, “Well, you probably didn’t get it because you’re lousy at doing interviews.” Very likely you would have consoled your friend, saying how terrible it was, how much you knew the friend wanted the job. You might have suggested going out for lunch to process things.

You can soothe yourself similarly. You initially might think that this should not be happening to you: what’s wrong with you? After all, everyone else is clearly living happy, normal lives. Neff argues that, with this type of negative, unkind thinking, you just end up suffering more because you feel isolated, alone, and different. With the self-kindness of compassion directed to yourself, the inner talk can go more like, “Well, everyone fails occasionally; everyone has issues and struggles” – because you understand that is inherent in the human condition. This opens the door for you to grow from the experience.

Embrace your common humanity

This component asks us to acknowledge that all beings populating the planet are imperfect in one way or another, and all of us suffer. In fact, even the one particular “flaw” that you are flagellating yourself for will not be uniquely owned by you; others will have it, too. Thus, as we come to embrace the perfection of our common imperfection, we experience a connection to all of humankind, a sense of belonging that, “We are all in this together”. Ultimately, you may be able to see how your setbacks or weaknesses are gifts, because they help you to understand yourself better, rather than liabilities that should make you feel bad about who you are (Gordon, 2018; Emel, n.d.).

Mindfulness at the heart of it

When we are mindful, we are living in the present moment, without denial, avoidance, or judgment. Here self-compassion can enter in. Most people avoid their pain and hurt, trying to make it go away. In doing that, the opposite happens, as we experience suffering. Buddhist Shinzen Young has proposed the formula that Suffering = Pain x Resistance. That is, the more we resist pain, the more suffering we have. But if we quietly allow the hurt to have its moment, it will come and then we can let it go. Mindfulness allows you to stay with the pain without the resistance. Thus you are able to reflect on the struggles and failures and why they might have happened without the negative judgments against yourself which tend to preclude learning from the situation (Emel, n.d.; Gordon, 2018). Mindfulness is a highly useful tool against the inner critic who opposes our self-compassionate efforts, because in a mindful state, we can watch the critical thoughts and not engage with them if they are not helpful.

Self-compassion in action

Gently, then, what can you do to increase your self-compassion? Here are some steps deemed essential by positive psychology proponents:

  1. Practice forgiveness. How long must you punish yourself for past mistakes? People in your life already know that you aren’t perfect, and they love you anyway: for whom you are, which does not include “faultless”. Note if you are wholly dependent for a sense of self-worth on having a good performance or seeming to exude perfection. Create a mantra and leave it where you will see it to remind yourself to be forgiving. It could say something like, “I’m ok like I am”, or “Nothing is owed for that mistake; I forgive myself and let it go”, or possibly, “I am worthy of love because I have a pulse” (Ohlin, 2018).
  2. Employ a growth mindset. Those who have embraced a growth mindset have consistently been shown in research to embrace, rather than avoid, challenges. Growth-mindset people learn rather than shrink from criticism. They can appreciate others’ successes, in part because they can see others – through seeing themselves – with compassion (Dweck, 2008).
  3. Express gratitude. We can foster gratefulness through a gratitude journal, gratitude walks, or even a stillness practice focusing on that for which we are grateful. By tuning in to what we do have rather than pining for what we don’t, we move the focus away from ourselves and our shortcomings and out to the big, gratitude-worthy world (Ohlin, 2018).
  4. Be generous – at the right level. Positive psychology advocates assert that giving is important, but only insofar as it does not keep you from meeting your own needs. Research by Raghunathan (2016) has identified three reciprocity styles: giver, taker, and matcher. The givers are the most generous people, employing their compassion through giving. But for generosity to work, it shouldn’t be totally selfless: that is, given in a way that reduces one’s own wellbeing.
  5. Practice mindfulness. As above. Remember: it lessens self-judgment, positively impacting on self-compassion (Ohlin, 2018).

Compassion for others: The same deal

We said that we would look first at self-compassion, and then at compassion for others. Here we are at the “others” part, and guess what: it’s the same deal. If we want to experience compassion for others, we can re-trace the steps we took to gain it for ourselves. In other words, we can act in kindness, we can call up our recognition of our common humanity with the other person (and thus, their “imperfection” as a fellow human being), and we can be with them mindfully: that is, accepting them – warts and all – in the present moment, without judgment.

When the “other” is a client and we would foster that same compassion in them for themselves, the drill is no different. Clients with greater self-compassion are able to more easily move through difficult material, forgive themselves and others, and become happier, more productive human beings (Desmond, 2016).

Moreover, research supports the idea that self-compassion engenders positive emotions (such as observed by positive psychology researchers like Martin Seligman, Ed Diener, and Kristin Neff (Seligman, 1992 and 2004; Biswas-Diener & Dean, 2007; Neff, 2010), increases our ability to notice more possibilities (such as Barbara Frederickson has espoused with her Broaden and Build Theory, 2001), helps us perform better on cognitive tasks, and decreases the incidence of heart disease and cancer (Desmond, 2016).

Psychotherapist and author Tim Desmond gives us five ways to help engender compassion in our clients:

  1. Unlock a client’s natural compassion. This can be done by helping clients to contact the deep wellspring of compassion residing in every person. Citing the discovery of neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp, Desmond explains that we can activate clients’ “Care Circuit”, a primary emotional circuit in the brain which creates the experience of warmth, caring, and compassion. It is essential for bonding and caretaking in all mammals. Ask the client to focus on some object of their affection, such as a child, a pet, or a religious figure and to imagine sending that being love and compassion. The client then focuses on the feelings of warmth and openness that this engenders. As the client learns to unlock compassion for others, the Care Circuit can be directed toward their own suffering in order to create healing (Desmond, 2016).
  2. Use compassion to transform suffering in the present. We can break this down into two steps: first, we simply ask the client to notice the suffering and to give themselves permission to feel exactly what they’re feeling (which is not the same as saying that they want to continue feeling that way: only that they aren’t fighting themselves on it). It is about recognition and acceptance. The second step is to respond to the recognised suffering with care and kindness, which might mean the client asking that part of themselves if there is anything it needs – and then listening for a response. The answer might call for action, such as leaving a dangerous situation, or merely reassurance, such as hearing, “No matter how this turns out, you still deserve to be loved”.
  3. Use compassion to transform suffering in the past. Here Desmond explains how we can use a process called memory reconsolidation, a fairly new discovery from neuroscience which enables clients to activate their Care Circuit at the same time that they activate a distressing memory. By getting in touch with the source of suffering (say, feelings of neglect from early childhood) and generating compassion in the same moment (say: loving-kindness directed toward the client’s “little one” to reassure that it won’t be neglected again), a new association is built in the brain so that the memory itself becomes less distressing. We can understand it as emotional healing on a molecular level (Desmond, 2016).
  4. Help clients understand why they engage in self-criticism so that they can overcome it. True compassion means extending care and kindness to even the parts of ourselves that we consider to be dysfunctional or pathological. Desmond gives the example of a person doing something clumsy: say, spilling water on the floor. The uncompassionate response might be something like one’s inner critic leaping up to say, “You idiot! Now everyone will think you’re clumsy”. Many clients reckon that they would leap to their own defence at this point, telling their inner critic, “No, I’m not an idiot; everyone spills things sometimes”. The critic would insist otherwise and the two parts of the client would be off to the interpersonal races! To gain peace, Desmond instead advises slowing down the reaction (taking a deep breath) and bringing loving presence to the critic, by noting, “I hear you don’t want me to look clumsy in front of others. Are you trying to tell me to be more careful?” In this scenario, the client may be able to hear the warning part of the message (be more careful) without being “poisoned” by the criticism (“You’re an idiot”). It will take the client practice, but it can be done (Desmond, 2016).
  5. Practice self-compassion. When you can model self-compassion, you put into the environment a vibration that promotes all-around healing and positive change, which helps all who enter your life to feel better (Desmond, 2016).

Extending compassion is an art, but science is increasingly supporting its role in helping us show up as our happiest, healthiest self, even as we inspire that in others.


  • Biswas-Diener, R., & Dean, B. (2007). Positive psychology coaching: Putting the science of happiness to work for your clients. Hoboken, New Jersey: John Wiley & Sons, Inc. 
  • Desmond, T. (2016). Five ways to put self-compassion into therapy. Greater Good. Retrieved on 4 April, 2019, from: website.
  • Dweck, C. (2008). Mindset: The new psychology of success. New York, U.S.A.: Ballantine Books.
  • Emel, B. (n.d.). Developing self-compassion and learning to be nicer to ourselves. Tiny Buddha. Retrieved on 4 April, 2019, from: website.
  • Frederickson, B. (2001). The role of positive emotions in positive psychology: The broaden-and-build theory of positive emotions. American Psychologist, March, 2001, 218 – 226.
  • Gordon, S. (2018). How self-compassion helps you cope with the ups and downs of life. Verywellmind. Retrieved on 4 April, 2019, from: website.
  • Neff, K. (2010). Self-compassion: Stop beating yourself and leaving insecurity behind. New York, New York: William Morrow, an imprint of Harper Collins. 
  • Ohlin, B. (2018). 5 Steps to develop self-compassion & overcome your inner critic. Positive Psychology Program. Retrieved on 4 April, 2019, from: website.